Give Yourself Free Therapy Simply by Writing Things Down

For years, I’ve recommended that people keep a journal. Not just people in crisis, but everyone. It’s one of the hardest things to motivate somebody to do, and yet once done, everyone tells me that it’s amazingly enlightening and effective.

A journal isn’t a diary. It’s an exercise in reflection, expression and exploration. There’s nothing like putting pen to paper to instill a sense of optimism about your aspirations. Seeing something on paper makes it more real than merely thinking it.

It all comes down to living the examined life. We live in an age of insipid acronyms like LOL and OMG, superficial sound bites, half-baked ideas, televised nonsense and not-fully-thought-out emotions. It’s the mental equivalent of eating only fast food. Everybody’s capable of deeper thinking, and everybody has a need to be reflective. In fact, a lot of the symptoms we’ve labeled as attention deficit disorder, depression, anxiety and substance abuse are the result of not living an examined life.

Consider these sample questions for your journal:

“What emotions do I feel right now?” “What percentage of today did I experience each of the following: anger, sadness, irritation, joy, contentment, anxiety, disappointment, frustration?” “Which people or situations stand out most about today?” “What attitudes did I exhibit today? Was I pessimistic, cautious, gloomy, upbeat, energetic, lethargic? Which of these was I aware of that nobody else was aware of?” “What issues did I resolve today?” “What attitude do I wish to project tomorrow?” “Did I feel like a victim today? Could I have made different choices to feel less like that?” “Would my ideal hero operate like I did today? If not, what would he or she do differently?”

These are only a few examples to get you started. Use your personal experiences to get creative and generate your own approach. Regular readers of this column know that I encourage introspection as a way to solve just about any emotional conflict. To introspect means to live the examined life; to apply focus, thought and awareness to the emotions you’re experiencing. By looking at yourself objectively (i.e., the way you would look at and evaluate at a stranger or an acquaintance), you can correct contradictions in your thinking before they lead to more serious problems.

Contradictions can lurk in the shadows of your emotions, and if you’re not in the habit of looking closely at them, the result can be faulty decision-making and all the turmoil that comes with it. Keeping a regular journal can give you that insight. By writing down your feelings and examining them objectively, you can determine if you’re expecting contradictory things.

I can hear the responses now: “I don’t have the time. It’s not worth the effort.” (People say the same thing about therapy, counseling and self-reflection in general.) Well, at least that’s honest. But think about it from this angle: Do you really have the time for unexplained depression, unexpressed anger and frustration? Are you OK with feeling like a victim and whining about how you “had a bad day?” Slowly and insidiously, these things sap your energy and well-being. Isn’t life too short to put up with all that unnecessary emotional clutter? Don’t you have better things to do?

If I’ve learned anything in my 35+ years of counseling people, it’s that most emotional difficulties can be avoided by prevention. Leading an examined life and keeping tabs on your feelings with a journal can be an effective pre-emptive strike against problems that can make your life less enjoyable than it could be. Give it a try. Why not start now?


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